An excerpt from Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, a new book by Omri Elisha.
There are many ways to be ambitious, and many different objectives that ambitious people aspire to aside from wealth and power. For those we call “people of faith,” the life of religious commitment is a relentless, often challenging pursuit of virtues that-like fame, fortune, or artistic genius-are perceived as elusive yet ultimately attainable. Whether such virtues are enacted in everyday life or conceived in other-worldly terms, the ambitions that propel religious people toward lofty ideals are rooted in cultural practices that allow sacred pursuits, including the triumph of righteousness over mediocrity, to appear not only desirable but always close at hand. The ambitions of religious faith, and for that matter all personal aspirations that we often misrecognize as expressions of radical individuality, are inherently social in their inception and saturated in moral content.
This book is about evangelical Protestants affiliated with megachurches and faith-based ministries in the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the ambitious efforts of some pastors and churchgoers to increase their faith community’s investments in various forms of altruistic social engagement. Based on nearly sixteen months of ethnographic research carried out between 1999 and 2002, my study focuses on cultural practices and individual experiences related to organized benevolence and social outreach, areas of ministry that are fraught with ideological tension. In describing how conservative and predominantly white evangelicals navigate the shifting and contested boundaries of social engagement, I offer an in-depth perspective on important aspects of North American evangelicalism-including the complexity of evangelical moral and political attitudes at the congregational level-about which there has been much speculation but little concrete analysis. Continue Reading →